Grab some friends and get building! After a too-long hiatus, this beloved race is back, and with it comes a supply of wild, wacky homemade watercraft.
After a pandemic-induced hiatus, the famous Rock River Anything that Floats Race is returning to Rockford this summer. On Aug. 20, spectators will once again gather to marvel as makeshift vessels glide down the river. The race route, which spans 1.65 miles, begins just north of the Auburn Street Bridge and ends at Prairie Street Brewing Co. downtown.
Powered only by the brave and resourceful humans aboard, watercraft of all shapes, sizes and themes float toward the finish line. As the name of the race implies: if it floats, it’s a boat.
Race organizers say some boats from years past are so clever they’re hard to forget.
“The airplane from 2018 was a crazy float,” says Reed Sjostrom, chief brand and products officer at Prairie Street Brewing Co. Katy Chadwick, broadcast revenue manager at Mid-West Family Broadcasting, agrees. “They put an actual plane on the water,” she says. “It was wild.”
Of all the floats that Jay Graham, founder and creative director at GrahamSpencer Brand + Content Solutions, has seen at the event, two are stuck in his memory. The first is a military-inspired float from 2019.
“A Navy veteran re-created a scale model of the ship he served on,” Graham says. “It was an engineering marvel.”
The second is a movie-themed raft with a unique mast.
“Remember that scene from ‘A Christmas Story’ where the father gets an award, and it turns out to be a woman’s leg with stockings? One ambitious team made a 15-foot model of the famous ‘FRAGILE’ leg lamp,” he adds.
Sjostrom, Chadwick and Graham are excited to be part of this year’s race committee. The annual event brings teams, families and businesses together for good-natured fun while enjoying one of Rockford’s best assets: the Rock River.
While the modern installment of the Anything that Floats Race is in its fifth year, the event dates back to 1976 when a local radio station organized a Yanks vs. Brits raft race in celebration of the U.S. bicentennial. What began as a two-boat race quickly evolved into a popular tradition that attracted tens of thousands of contestants, volunteers and spectators.
Some years later, the event was discontinued. But in 2016, 40 years after its maiden voyage, the race was back on. With the exception of the pandemic years, it’s been an annual tradition ever since.
“I actually remember the race from back in the 1970s,” Graham says. “It was so cool. People loved participating in it, and they loved watching it. So, when Reed asked if our GrahamSpencer team wanted to work on this project to bring back the Anything that Floats Race, we said, ‘Let’s do it!’”
Registration for this year’s creative parade of misfit boats is open until August 14. The cost to register a float is $100. For more information, including a map of the race route, registration packet, race rules and volunteer opportunities, head to the Rock River Anything that Floats Race website, rratfr.com.
“I can’t emphasize enough what a cool team-building exercise it is,” Graham says. “Race day is just a blast for the contestants because people are lining the river yelling and cheering them on.”
Sjostrom says the camaraderie and sportsmanship make the day even more fun.
“Teams start lining up early in the morning,” he says. Everyone just can’t wait to get in the water and race; they’re excited to be part of it.”
There are two divisions, one for completely homemade rafts and one for commercially manufactured hulls. Both divisions require racers to power the rafts themselves, but race organizers say the flexibility enables more people to participate.
“The choices give people creative liberty to take the design as far as they want,” Chadwick says. “It can be something very simple, or it can be elaborate. I think what’s cool is that people can give as much effort as they want or do it last minute. It really runs the gamut.”
Landlubbers will have plenty of places along the shore to watch the floats go by. Each boat is timed, so just one raft at a time leaves the starting line. Not only is this safer for everyone on the water, but it also provides spectators with a steady stream of entertainment. Popular places for viewers include the launch site, the “Symbol” statue, Sinnissippi Park, Riverfront YMCA, Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens and, of course, Prairie Street Brewing Co.
Individuals and businesses are invited to sponsor the race, get involved with the committee or even volunteer at the event by helping get boats in and out of the water, directing traffic for parking or handing out awards. Details about volunteering, vendor and sponsorship opportunities are available online.
“We’re looking for people to participate in various capacities,” Chadwick says. “We have a lot of ways that people can raise their hand to be part of this.”
One of the best vantage points along the river is Prairie Street Brewing Co., where spectators can work on their tan, enjoy live music, and fire ducks off the dock and toward a mid-river target. Don’t worry. The ducks are rubber.
Dubbed “Release The Quackin,” this dockside game is like a duck drop but better.
“We have this big slingshot on the edge of the dock, and there’s a target floating out in the river,” Graham says. “You can buy ducks and fire them out to win prizes.” The game runs from noon to 3 p.m. and costs $5 per duck or $20 for 5 ducks.
It’ll be a party-like atmosphere all day at Prairie Street with food trucks, vendors and the brewery’s usual beverages.
“We’ll do something similar to Dinner on the Dock,” Sjostrom says. “We’ll have grab-and-go food options, the usual brewpub menu and the bar.”
Food and drink options are also available at Nicholas Conservatory, another good place to see the rafts floating by.
While the pandemic may have dropped an anchor on the Anything That Floats race from 2020 to 2022, the time has come to reignite this passion project.
“Everybody missed out on so many things for the past couple of years for obvious reasons,” Graham says. “We respected the advice that was given by our local government not to gather large groups of people, and this is the first year where we’re not only in the clear but also had time to do the planning.”
And it’s all for a good cause. As a nonprofit event, proceeds go to support community events and activities. Past beneficiaries include the Fourth of July Celebration, Festival of Lights, Rock River Trail Initiative and the Ski Broncs.
“What makes this event successful is people supporting the race,” Chadwick says. “Without that support, these events go away. So, show up, make your raft, become a sponsor or sign up to volunteer so we can keep fun things like this happening in town. Jump onboard.”